Unhappy as I am that so close a friend is gone, I cannot scold you for leaving. You’ve done what I think is right, a word that still carries full weight with you and me. I know how much you love Jerusalem. You’ve told me what a good job awaits you at the university, and that you’ve shipped over a microwave oven for your new apartment, something your wife never enjoyed here. I also know that your sons will soon be serving in the army, how you will writhe in the toils of the Israeli bureauracy, what a burden of problems you assume as an immigrant. I take you at your word when you say that you have left Canada for Israel only because you want to, but a hero may well be one whose desires happen to coincide with the national imperative.
You may be right that the Jews are, and will remain, a people united in dispersion. Moored as I am in Canada, I have every incentive to trust the course of my life. But a Jew within our dispersed people may also be under a particular obligation to know where he is most needed, and if he acts on that knowledge he makes us proud, if also lonelier.
Before you try to squirm out of this stentorian rhetoric about pride and heroism with some wisecrack, let me anticipate your discomfort. Mona Richman, Eliza’s sister-in-law, does not share my admiration for your move. By my calculation, at just about the time you were passing through El Al security at Mirabel Airport forty-eight hours ago (no doubt impressing the agents with your elegant Hebrew), I was sitting beside this woman at the shiva for Eliza’s mother. Mona was my schoolmate through grades one to seven at the Folkschule, a girl who never let on how smart she really was. After we had caught up with old times, she became my guide to the Richman family, beginning with the oldest son, Mark, a volunteer in the Israeli army, at present home on compassionate leave. Eliza had hoped that he would come back into the family business, but the boy had just let his parents know that when he finished his army service he intended to study electrical engineering at the Technion, then settle right there, in Haifa. Mona described the boy as clever and popular, and his good looks I could confirm. “I don’t understand,” she confided to me, “I thought only losers go to Israel nowadays.”
Isn’t that a breathtaking formulation? What a treasure of received ideas in this woman’s “nowadays.” A true Jewish woman of the 80’s, active in the synagogue, she acknowledges that the Zionist impulse was once creditable, that the Rich-mans’ son and you, my dear loser, would have merited her respect in bygone days. Maybe she retains images of one-armed Joseph Trumpeldor on his horse, kibbutzniks raising water towers and draining the Hula swamps, haloed Ben-Gurion under Herzl’s majestic portrait, proclaiming the birth of the Jewish state. After all, she herself once stood side by side with me in our blue-and-white girls’ choir, piping out Zionist chestnuts. When her little soprano voice trilled “Who will build, will build a house in Tel Aviv? Who will plant, will plant a vineyard in Tel Hai?” she too must have shivered as the boys boomed their answer in voices just beginning to crack, “We, the pioneers, will build Tel Aviv. We, the halutzim, will cultivate Tel Hai.” Her “nowadays” concedes that people of strength and ambition did once go to Israel, or would have been credited with strength and ambition for determining to live there. Had you gone east then, Mona Richman would have been at the dock, waving the Jewish flag.
You know, I actually remember how that was. In 1949 we drove to Quebec City to see my brother off on the S.S. Tabinta. All year long his Zionist group had met in our living room to work out the details of their trip and to hammer out a common ideology. Their arguments were so fierce I was convinced the Arabs stood no chance. My brother was a moderate, an idealist without portfolio, but the two dozen others seemed to be setting off on holy missions of their own rich invention. When Joe E., the Communist, spoke about shaping the kibbutz it reminded me of the way he drove his motorcycle: loud, fast, and recklessly. Davy F., smiling sweetly as if his egalitarian vision had already been realized on earth, could with his gentleness persuade an elephant to get up and dance. Tanis, a law student, opposed the agrarian romanticism of the group, insisting that they ought to be founding an urban commune. Without sponsors and at no one’s urging, they were off in the first flush of statehood to demonstrate their allegiance to Israel through a long summer’s volunteer work on a kibbutz, and to pledge their immigration as settlers in the years ahead.
They were so fervent, so glamorous. Their collective departure was the boldest thing I had ever known. I kept beside my bed a snapshot of my brother in a trenchcoat, against the rail of the ship, and turning toward it each morning the way pious Jews turn eastward in prayer, I pledged my own ascent. It was a curse to be five years younger than their eighteen, unable either to master the terms of discussion or to join in defending the homeland.
Still, I was not without a small share in that burst of glory. It was my final year at the Folkschule before entering high school, and if we couldn’t go overseas to help secure the land, at least we were busy securing the myth. The same spring my brother left for Israel our class mounted the most ambitious production the school had ever seen, a full-length drama that we students conceived, wrote, and staged by ourselves. Act 1 was silent. Through a series of frozen tableaux we showed the gradual transformation of broken refugees into illegal immigrants defying the British blockade. Figures dashed to the ground at the start became figures who kissed the ground at the end. Act 2 was a domestic scene in the kitchen of a Canadian Jewish home. The oldest son informs his parents that he is leaving for Palestine to throw in his lot with the builders of the new nation. (Lest you see my influence in this, you should know that the older sister of one of my classmates was already a member of kibbutz Eyn Hashofet near the Galilee.) In Act 3, which took a month to research, we reenacted the United Nations debate over the partition plan for Palestine. During the fateful roll-call our own hearts stopped every time the girl playing the delegate from Uruguay paused before delivering her decisive Yes. Act 4 was the inevitable siege, a Jewish settlement fighting off Arab attack in order to ensure for the nation a different future from what it had known in the past.
We were your ordinary rowdy kids: a boy gashed his head on an overhead pipe during rehearsals, and a girl forefeited her part for tickling the American delegate with a curtain rod during his key UN speech. But look what sure instincts we had. Did we know what we were doing when we dressed everyone in black for the opening act’s heavy, static representation of the European past, and everyone in white for the noisy, battling finish? How about our balancing of the family sitting around the table in Act 2 with the Family of Man around the table in Act 3—did we realize the depth of the Jewish yearning for acceptance when, changing scenes, we pulled the little table of the Jewish kitchen into the bigger circle of the United Nations? I’m struck especially by the ensemble concept of the script. There were no leading roles. Most of the play had all of us together on stage (which was also what made us so frisky). To perform the drama of modern Israel you had to draw everyone into the action because that was how we felt, united as a people, having been joined against our will in destruction, now willingly united to claim our right to live.
In all these aspects the script wrote itself, pronouncing our assurance that we had emerged from darkness into light, from slavery to freedom. We were equally certain that this reversal of our national fate required our participation. Jewish youngsters—at least one in a family—would have to leave the warmth of their Canadian kitchens to help in the ongoing struggle. My brother in his actions, my class in its representation of his actions, felt the same sense of urgency.
Note why we had to go: to fight off the Arab attack. In Act 3 the United Nations confirmed our right to exist as a people on its national soil, but in Act 4 the Arabs continued to deny that right. The theoretical framework of partition collapsed under the real opposition of the Arabs. The Jews would not be granted their moment of historical grace after all, but would have to fight for their land the way they had once lost it, by military force. The Jewish settlement had to defend itself, to defeat the enemy, in order to guarantee a happy end.
Once the battle was over, though, and the dead laid out tenderly on the stage, our play ended with a fervent Hatikvah, our hymn of hope. That too, maybe that especially, was part of the myth we were trying to secure. The Arabs of our imagination were a reasonable enemy. True, they did not want to accept Jewish sovereignty in what they considered, after centuries, to be their exclusive domain. True, they would not yield without an armed struggle. Contentious among themselves, they were nevertheless prepared to join forces to push us into the sea. True, true. It would be a terrible war, with many casualties, which is why we Diaspora Jews had to provide Israel with infusions of our blood. But when we won the war, at whatever ghastly price, peace would follow like a curtain being drawn. We were illumined by hope because we thought we could, in the end, determine the outcome of the battle.
One would have thought that after the scale of Hitler’s annihilation the Jews would lack the energy for military confrontation. Yet just the opposite was true. Remember your client—was his name Grodzinski?—who had fought in the battle for the road to Jerusalem and went back all the time to visit the graves of fellow soldiers he had barely known? When you told me about him I found it hard to understand why this ill-tempered survivor of Buchenwald should have made his way to Palestine to risk the life he had gone to such lengths to preserve. On the basis of his own testimony he was not a self-sacrificing man, and to move from one sphere of death to another seemed out of character. But in the seeming similarity between the corpses of Buchenwald and the dead of Latrun lay the instructive contrast.
At Buchenwald the Jew was erased. A man raised to believe that he had been made in the image of God found that he wasn’t even worth comparing to a dog. To be worth nothing, so that no work you could do, no service you could render, would hold as much value for the Germans as reducing you to dust—that was the Jew’s experience at Buchenwald. The Germans meant to make it our destiny. Compared with that, war against the Arabs and the British was like returning to human form. Degrading as it may be next to other styles of human association, armed conflict is still a struggle between men and men. Your client was not moving from one field of death to another, but from death to dignity. The proof lies precisely in the graves that he kept visiting of his fellow Jewish soldiers. They had graves. He knew even graves must be earned.
Our dignity might have been greater had the Arabs been able to accept our political reality as the British finally did when they withdrew from Palestine in 1948. But the British were exhausted. Having entered World War II with nothing to gain but what they stood to lose, they had drawn on all their resources, in the most important war ever fought, to produce arguably the “finest hour” of this millennium. They had no more stomach for battle in distant lands.
The Arabs were in quite a different mood. Where Europe had drained itself on the fields of slaughter, the Arabs emerged from the war free of their colonial occupiers, poised to consolidate their individual states and a united Arab nation. What an irritant the emergent Jewish state must have presented—irritant, but also opportunity. “The whole Arab people is unalterably opposed to the attempt to impose Jewish immigration and settlement upon it and ultimately to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.” Who but we could so have united the otherwise divided Arabs to pronounce the confident phrase, “the whole Arab people”? We were all they had in common. The weakness of the Jews had been amply demon-stated by the Germans, our standing in the community of nations even more conclusively. With the prospect of Arab hegemony in the Middle East so tantalizingly near, why indeed should they have agreed to share even a speck of land with a people whom civilized Europe had so recently starved, burned, gassed, shot, buried alive, reduced to fertilizer? Given their perspective, the Arabs would have been fools to accept partition without first trying to destroy the Jewish enemy.
So the gesture of accommodation was withheld, and the Jews had to fight for their sovereignty—like most other nations in world history. Israel suffered over 30,000 dead and wounded in its War of Independence. Yet at that point it still seemed that in denying the Jews their right to the land the Arabs were denying no more and no less than combatants normally deny to one another, and were forcing them to defend what combatants normally must defend. We considered ourselves a war’s length from peace.
That optimism lasted over two decades. People who set out for Israel between the time my brother’s group sailed in 1949 and the summer you and I met in the Sinai in 1969 were “winners” because Israel itself appeared to be on the verge of winning its place in the world. As long as we thought the Arabs would abide by the logic of war we felt ourselves masters of our fate. We Jews had only to prove our determination to remain a sovereign people in our homeland for the Arabs eventually to admit us as worthy enemies, then grudgingly accept us as neighbors, and finally recognize our usefulness as friends.
The Six-Day War felt like final victory. On June 12, 1967, Jews were certain that now, at last, Jordan would sue for some of its lost land, Egypt for the Sinai, even sullen Syria for a strip of the Golan Heights. Israel had just fought the perfect war. It was at this juncture that internal Jewish resistance to Zionism also briefly dissolved. Whatever hapened to the American Council for Judaism? Even residual Jewish Trotskyites paid the country their first tentative visit and found themselves admiring the forests planted by the Jewish National Fund. You could not go much further to impress the skeptics.
I’m not likely to forget the euphoria of the late 1960’s, as you and I had our momentary share in it. Instead of the graveyards that had been readied outside Tel Aviv for an estimated 40,000 casualties there were “only” 777 deaths, and a reunited Jerusalem. The Israel Institute for Applied Social Research published its polls on returning the captured territories in exchange for peace, and the figures showed overwhelming majorities of Israelis in a mood of utter magnanimity. After a victory of such scope, Israel had every reason to believe that it could relax its vigilance.
We misjudged the Arabs. They were not the reasonable enemy of our expectations, and their rejection was not subject even to the judgment of war, that final arbiter of political disputes. Quite the opposite. The great victory, which pushed the natural boundaries of Israel to their maximal limits, alerted the Arabs to the outer limit of the Israeli threat. Having lost the most lopsided of modern military confrontations, they discovered they still had the power to deny the victor regional acceptance. We had given them this power. Arab propagandists might trumpet their fear of Jewish expansionism, and circulate the Protocols of the Elders of Zion with its warning of Jewish world conquest, but as surely as Hitler knew, despite his words, that the Jews were not about to take over Europe, so the Arabs knew that the Jews had no ambition to take over the Middle East. Israel wanted a place on the map, and in the Six-Day War it had played its final card. Would the Israelis now march on Damascus? Were they about to seize Amman from King Hussein? Did they covet the beaches of Beirut? Would the Jews return as conquerers to the Pyramids? What a joke! The Arabs, an imperial people contemptuous of weakness, saw the Jewish hunger for peace glinting through the Israeli armor and knew that they had it in their power to starve us.
I’m now right on the heels of Mrs. Richman’s “nowadays,” because this is exactly where it began—with the decision on the part of the Arabs to continue their siege and with the dawning realization on the part of the Jews that one more war might not in fact be the last. There seemed to be no way to win the acceptance we had so long pursued. The Jewish people, after suffering six million deaths, might finally have consolidated a country of their own because they could no longer trust in the decency of nations, but the Arabs were about to teach us a deeper lesson: a sovereign Jewish people could be rejected as forcefully as a homeless tribe. The legitimacy of the Jewish state could be denied as ruthlessly as, once, the legitimacy of the Jewish religion.
I don’t think we have properly appreciated the genius of the Arab campaign since 1967. (The Jew’s tendency to underestimate his enemies has not been tempered even by his experience in this century.) The War of Attrition along the Suez Canal and the Yom Kippur attack of 1973 were in some ways the least of it. More impressive was the growing Arab support for the PLO, a bastard radical band that after 1967 was nursed by the Arab states into a full-scale terrorist army. Arab governments might not be able to transfer their sights from Israeli soldiers to Jewish women and children—at least not without incurring international displeasure and provoking Israel’s counterattack—but with safe passports and comfortable bank accounts, “homeless” killers could massacre at will. Israel scored no points with European opinion for the agricultural and engineering teams it sent out to underdeveloped countries. These were written off as so much self-promotion. It was the Arab death squads that won European respect. How desperately must the Palestinian Arabs desire this land from the Jews if they go to such chilling lengths to eliminate the usurpers. The more Jews the PLO killed, the more it gained the respect of Europe as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arabs.
The master stroke of Arab strategy was the war on Zionism. War is said to be the extension of politics, but the Arabs made politics the extension of war. They enlarged their war on Israel into an attack on the idea of Israel. Zionism, the Jewish claim to a homeland, was declared racist because it deprived Palestinian Arabs of their homeland. If you believe in the force of ideas you have to grant the Arabs their triumph, because they destroyed at a stroke what it had taken us over a century to achieve.
The keys to Arab political success were the substitution of “homeless Palestinian” for homeless Jew and the inversion of all the facts and terms of the Jewish national struggle. The same “whole Arab people” that had been “unalterably opposed to . . . a Jewish state in Palestine” now accused the Jews of having denied that state to the Palestinian Arabs. The Arabs, having themselves first rendered the Palestinians homeless by refusing to accept partition in 1948, and having kept them homeless by refusing to resettle in their vast lands those who needed a home, now blamed this condition of homelessness on the Jews. And indeed, they had their evidence. The camps are still there after, incredibly, almost four decades I
Of the million Jewish refugees from Arab lands, Israel today shows hardly a living trace. The tin-roofed transit shacks where the refugees broiled in summer and froze in winter have long since been replaced by modern apartments which, if they do not quite satisfy our aesthetic taste or the full needs of their residents, are still not designed to elicit the sympathy of the outside world. The Arab states, for their part, cultivated refugees the way others raise orchids, with the result that they now boast generations of destitute women and children. Everywhere the homeless Palestinians appear with their stigmata, to charge the Zionists with usurpation, racism, genocide.
It’s funny, isn’t it, that the Arabs, who place such value on military prowess, should have lost the wars of conquest, while the Jews, who take pride in the power of their intellect, should have lost the war of ideas? By declaring the illegitimacy of Zionism the Arabs not only robbed us of our rightful claims on them, but charged us with the very crime of which they rightly stood accused. Within less than a decade they deprived us of our moral advantage and reestablished us as a suspect nation that threatens the human equilibrium.
You know better than I how this works. You’re the one who explained to me that there is no crime before the law if no one is prepared to lay a charge. Thus, Jordan does not allow a Jew within its borders, and discriminates even against Jewish tourists. Jordanian law condemns an Arab to death for selling land to a Jew! Yet Jordan will never be indicted for racism, because there is no Jew self-respecting enough to press the charge. The Arabs have in any case preempted any moral or legal claims that we may have brought against them by accusing us of the original sin of entry into the Middle East to drain the swamps, plant the vineyards, and build Tel Aviv. As my mother says, Az men fregt a shayle vert treyf: you have only to put the question for the rabbi to pronounce the thing unclean. At the same Table of Nations that once credited our right to exist, our legitimacy is called daily into question. We stand accused—as by Christians through the centuries for the murder of Jesus—not for what is correctible, but for the fact of our national existence. No physical harm the Arabs can ever do us is as great as this accusation, because the charge justifies all the harm they will ever do us, calls it forth as a holy mission.
Mona Richman, apparently oblivious to Arab propaganda, nevertheless responds to the continuing barrage through her disappointment in a declining Israel. The real source of her anxiety is too dangerous to confront. When the Arabs revived in bold new form the accusation of our illegitimacy, they themselves may not have realized the potency of their idea among those to whom the Mona Richmans of the world feel they must truly answer. I mean, of course, the court of liberal opinion that is itself always deferential to the Left. The hostility to Jewish national revival was already smoldering on the Left—had been smoldering, in fact, since the 20’s and 30’s—and had only to be stoked by the Arabs into a blaze. Let’s face it: knowing on our flesh the “cash-value” of anti-Jewish ideas, we have good reason to lie awake at night over the knowledge that in 1984, 41 members of the United Nations voted to expel Israel from their midst. Mona Richman, who values her sleep, finds it more convenient to attribute to the Jewish state the failure of her hopes for it.
I hope you don’t get the impression from the turn of my letter that it is meant to protect you. It’s not Israel’s reputation that’s in question but our deceit. In today’s issue of the Canadian Jewish News (one of the many vehicles you’ve sacrificed in moving away from here) a luncheon speaker is quoted as describing the disenchantment of Diaspora Jews with Israel as “the cooling passion of a normal marriage.” In 1948, he says, we saw Israel through the adoring eyes of newlyweds. Now, nearing our fortieth anniversary, we find it hard to credit the wife of our youth with even a single charm. The audience, which must have overlooked the lie as well as the vulgarity, is said to have applauded.
If long-married couples are supposedly so bored with each other, why do Israelis these days look so lovingly on us? Hardly the irksome mate in an arid union, we Diaspora Jews seem to have released in our spouses a warmer, deeper affection. Israel’s intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen flirt with us as never before. And indeed, why shouldn’t they appreciate our value? Thriving on a continent of apparently limitless resources, we are spared the affront of hatred. Our sons are taken in marriage by the untitled princesses of the land. Our manifold flaws are no longer of much interest even to satirists. No one abhors us—only they, the occupiers of Zion, now give us a bad name. In a grotesque reversal, it is the Israelis who are now charged with poisoning the wells, while the majority of Jews in the lands of plenty live a life of normalcy such as the Jewish people has always dreamed of.
Our Israeli bride was once irresistible to us, because she brought us the dowry of international good will. Now that the Arabs and their various sponsors and toadies have smeared her with the filth of their loathing, for us too she has begun to assume the twisted shape of the ghetto Jew. Why, look, we say, she is full of warts: her democracy is endangered, her greed corrupts the purity of her soul, her fanatics are flourishing, her economy is faltering, her leaders flounder. Our disappointment, whose source is in the Arabs and in ourselves—in them for so irrationally rejecting our presence, in ourselves for not conclusively affirming it—we attribute ever more self-righteously, belligerently, to the Jewish state.
Am I absurd, barely forty-eight hours after your departure, to begin addressing you as an Israeli, with a sense of much more than geographic distance between us? Now that you have your Identity Card, are you suddenly the magnified Other? I’m reminded of my first year as a teacher, and of my class of engineering students. Considerately I prepared my lectures on Chaucer and Spenser with analogies to slide rules, bridge construction, and electrical sockets—until a delegation of young men came to say that they would appreciate my lectures more if I just treated them the way I would anyone else. I will not forget the lesson they taught me in the dangers of artificial differentiation, and I’m even less likely to forget how much you and I have in common. But the differences I note are true, as I can show by a simple example.
Tomorrow night, when it comes, first for you and seven hours later for me, we will both be sitting with our families watching the evening news. Coincidentally, both your family and mine will be tuned in to our neighbor’s broadcast: we because we prefer the range of U.S. coverage, you for the linguistic convenience of Jordan’s prime-time news in English. My children will feel beside them the protective shield of the freest country in the world, and let us hope the strongest. To be sure, one or another of their trendy teachers will have warned them of the dangers of cultural oppression, and tried to sell them on the charms of victim-chic, but they are smart enough to know themselves blessed.
Your children, meanwhile, will feel themselves brushed by the political intentions of a mean state that projects its weather map of the region without any sign of Israel on it—neither small, medium, nor large. One night in the Jewish homeland and they will know themselves despised, rejected, contingent. No doubt some of their trendy teachers will pretend that such details don’t matter, given the essential brotherhood of the human race. They are smart enough to know themselves threatened.
You will do a good job of assuring your family that their new country is sufficiently powerful to withstand its enemies, and so, for the moment, it may be. But what can shield them from the hate? Will you try to teach them that God’s protecting love must compensate for the destructive will of the Arabs? Will you try to teach them that adversity strengthens? Will you remind them that as Sadat came at last to Jerusalem, so too will the other Arab rulers, each in his time, and, one hopes, in theirs? Jewish hope has been a questionable asset in this century, and if you are going to feed it to your children, they’d be well advised to live on tight rations. Tell them Sadat’s coming makes their odds with the Arabs a little better, at least, than with our vaunted messiah.
There is nothing so debilitating as unrequited hostility directed against you. You find you don’t want to expend the energy required to defend yourself, but you also don’t want to live askew in someone else’s mind with no power over his warped image. So you retreat, or deny, or turn the disease inward. Of course, as fellow Jews we now bear a far from equal burden of the curse of hatred that pursues us. It would be corrupt to pretend otherwise.
Yes, I know, I told you that I know, this has nothing to do with your decision. Like your brother who went to Palo Alto, you’re moving to a land of the free and a home of the brave. The same lust for sunshine. The same tempting plum of a job. I will try to keep that in mind as I read the news. . . .